Wolves in Westchester

A wolf howls in the autumn morning, and is joined by three other voices. It could be Alaska, but instead it’s tony Westchester County in the suburbs of New York City, where no wolves have lived for more than a century. These wolves aren’t wild; they’re residents of the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC).

WCC is tucked away at the end of a dirt road on 26 acres of deciduous forest and wetlands. The center, operating out of a donated trailer and decorated with near-life size cutouts of top predators, opened in 1999 with a mission to promote wolf conservation through education.

Programs typically begin with a 45-minute multimedia presentation to separate the facts from folklore. Barry Braeden, educator and wolf caretaker, always has a specific goal for the educational programs. "We want visitors to leave here with four messages," he says. "Wolves in the wild are not dangerous, wolves play a vital role in the ecosystem, wolves are not pets and saving the world is the daily responsibility of all of us."

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New York"s Wolf Conservation Center is home to four gray wolves (including Atka, shown here) and three endangered Mexican wolves.© J. Henry Fair

Visitors also have the rare opportunity to view the wolves" natural behavior as they stake out territory in their two-acre enclosure. Although the four gray wolves in residence were born and raised in captivity, they are not tame and observers can clearly see them act out their natural hierarchy.

The center has recently expanded its mission to include a role as a foster home. The new arrivals are three Mexican gray wolves, easily distinguished from their relatives by their smaller size and different coloring. While gray wolves of other regions have recently been downlisted to threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the subspecies Mexican wolf is still listed as endangered. Only 43 roam the wilds of New Mexico and Arizona.

The new arrivals are being raised in seclusion, away from visitors, for release into the wild as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican Wolf Recovery Project. "We’re very hands-off with them," says Braeden. "We don’t want them to associate food with people."

WCC plans to expand its educational and reintroduction work. It recently helped to buy and protect 111 acres of wetlands adjacent to the center, 11 of which will be used for the Mexican Wolf Recovery Project. WCC sees protecting wolves as part of the larger effort to preserve entire ecosystems. "Wolves are an umbrella species," says Braeden. Without key predators, he adds, prey populations grow beyond the ecosystem’s carrying capacity and the entire food chain becomes unbalanced. To explain its work, WCC often provides an apt quote from Henry David Thoreau: "In wilderness is the preservation of the world."